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Dangerous dolls?

Psychologists push back against market forces and products that sexualize young girls.

APA Monitor, September 2006

When Brooklyn mother Lisa Flythe first read about plans Hasbro was hatching for a new doll line modeled after the risqué music group the Pussycat Dolls—and marketed to 6- to 8-year-old girls—she couldn’t believe it.

“I thought, ‘Are they out of their minds?’” says the former director of commercial clearances with MTV networks, whose daughter is 5.

She immediately fired off letters to Hasbro’s CEO and the director of marketing, asking how they could possibly market these dolls to such young children. She also contacted the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC)—a national coalition of health-care professionals, educators, advocacy groups and parents that she belongs to.

Hasbro’s response? A letter saying that people would like collecting the dolls, and that the company wasn’t marketing to 6-year-olds, but to 8-year-olds, says Flythe. Incensed, she forwarded the reply to the CCFC. The group, co-founded by psychologist Susan Linn, EdD, in 1999, launched a letter-writing campaign that ended up in victory for Flythe, Linn and their colleagues when Hasbro canceled production of the dolls.

Don’t cha wish your daughter looked up to me?

For her part, Linn was appalled by Hasbro’s plans for the Pussycat Dolls, but not surprised. She and other psychologists have long been concerned about the blatantly sexual images that toy and clothing companies are marketing to young girls. That concern led Linn to fight back through CCFC.

Highly sexualized products such as the proposed toys are one way marketers exploit children’s natural tendency to emulate older children who are already emulating adults, says Linn, also associate director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston.

“Marketers say that kids are getting older at younger ages and market to 6-year-olds like they’re 13, and 13-year-olds like they are 20,” she says. “As a result, children may be acquiring the material trappings of maturity, but their judgment and their cognitive and emotional development is not keeping pace.”

Flythe believes that the Pussycat Dolls line was an attempt to out-do MGA Entertainment’s Bratz dolls, the plump-lipped dolls dressed in fashionable, sexy clothes and marketed to 6- to 10-year-old girls. Those dolls were on the edge of good taste, but the Pussycat Dolls were worse because they are based on a real-life group that started as a burlesque review, Flythe says. The scantily clad group branched out to pop music and now sings about topics such as group sex in songs like “Don’t Cha.” Some of the tamer lyrics are, “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me? Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?”

Once CCFC launched the letter-writing campaign with coalition member Dads and Daughters, the organizations generated 2,000 letters within 48 hours. Within a few days, Hasbro canceled plans for the dolls, releasing a statement that it realized that the Pussycat Dolls music was targeted at an older age group, making the dolls inappropriate.

Sex as a commodity

It was a rare victory in a commercial culture that is pressing titillating products on younger and younger girls, says Linn: “The market message is that sex is power—a commodity.”

Dolls like the Pussycat Dolls or Bratz are just one example of this trend, says Linn, who cites as other examples belly-baring shirts, low-rider jeans and thong underwear made for girls under 10.

Marketers see this as a way to broaden demand, agrees psychologist Sharon Lamb, EdD, a psychology professor at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., and co-author of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes” (St. Martins Press, 2006). The marketers are responding to girls’ desire to look sexy, something pop culture suggests is more valuable than being smart, she says.

“There aren’t a lot of great role models in books or among teen stars,” observes Lamb. Magazines such as CosmoGIRL! promote sexy images and then encourage girls to buy makeup and clothing to look like the models and celebrities they feature, she continues.

Both Lamb and Linn point out that sex used to sell products is very different from actual sexuality. In fact, honest discussion about children’s budding sexuality is overshadowed by distortions such as the glorification of “pimp culture” in music, movies and in products, Linn points out. “The rapper Nelly has a song called ‘Pimp Juice’ and now there’s an actual energy drink,” she says. “This normalization of men selling women is terribly destructive to boys and girls.”

While there needs to be more research, some evidence is starting to indicate that sexualized media do have an impact on behavior, says Linn.

Lamb acknowledges the pull of sexualized images is seductive, but the sense of power sold in these images is a false one. “Is it really the power to be a sexual being in the world?” she asks. “Or just power to get boys to look at you and like you?” Because these sexy images are sold as a kind of girl power, many girls don’t realize that this kind of power is not the kind that will help them to be successful, happy adults, Lamb says.

Parents need to talk about healthy sexuality early on before girls are bombarded by these images, says Lamb. She urges adults to discuss sexualized media messages with children, and help children put them in perspective.

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An APA task force on the sexualization of girls is currently examining existing literature and will recommend future research directions in February.


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